Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Passion in the Face of Death
In Bel Canto, the proximity of death and suffering makes people love more passionately. We learn that Hosokawa’s love for opera grew in part from his hard life in post–World War II Japan. Simon and Edith Thibault renew their love for each other in what they call a “godforsaken country.” Most centrally, the hostages and the terrorists grow to love one another in the face of death and danger. The characters in Bel Canto must live for the moment, since their situation is uncertain and death could come at any time. They find that under these circumstances, they crave love and friendship. The first time Watanabe and Carmen kiss, they do not make great plans for their future; they talk about the likelihood that they will be separated.
The specter of death also sharpens the characters’ appreciation of beauty and art. The first time Kato plays the piano, he plays “the love and loneliness that each of them felt, that no one had brought himself to speak of.” Coss sings “as if she were trying to save the lives of everyone in the room.”
Patchett suggests that the drone of daily life makes it hard to live passionately. In order to get through the days, people put aside thoughts of loss, vulnerability, and death. They behave calmly and conventionally, and mute the desire to live and love with intensity. In Paris, a city of elegant women, Thibault saw his wife as just one of many elegant women. In Japan, Hosokawa spent most of his day fulfilling his duties as businessman, husband, and father. He shoehorned his passion into the little time he devoted to opera. It takes a hostage crisis to teach the characters in Bel Canto to live and love fully.
The Strangeness of Fate
In the world of Bel Canto, fate exists, and people are at the mercy of destinies they can’t control. In the fifth chapter of the novel, we learn that Father Arguedas is “only just beginning to see the full extent to which it was his destiny to follow, to walk blindly into fates he could never understand.” Like Arguedas, Watanabe marvels at the strangeness of fate. It seems almost impossible that he, a highly educated and well-traveled professional from Japan, would meet Carmen, a terrorist from a remote village in Latin America. But not only do Watanabe and Carmen meet, they fall in love. Watanabe often thinks about how strange it is that they should have found each other. Thibault, similarly, is amazed by the unexpected twists in his marriage. First he rediscovers his love for his wife, and then he loses her company after being taken captive.
The Basic Human Impulse Toward Civilization
Many novels explore humans’ base impulses toward violence and power. Novels like The Lord of the Flies suggest that our darkest impulses lurk just beneath the surface and will spring out if given the chance. In Bel Canto, Patchett suggests just the opposite: that our strongest impulses are not barbaric, but civilizing. At the beginning of the novel, the characters are caught up in daily struggles for fame, for money, for power. But once captivity removes these struggles, people gravitate toward art and culture. The hostages and the terrorists read, sing, learn languages, cook, watch TV, play chess, play sports, garden, and fall in love.
Opera suffuses Bel Canto, the title of which comes from opera and means “beautiful song.” Roxanne Coss sings, Tetsuya Kato accompanies her, and a star is born in the person of Cesar, who has an angelic voice. Opera connects the characters in the novel, giving them a source of joy during their captivity. The novel borrows its structure from operas, which typically feature beautiful scenes and songs and end in tragedy. Like operas, Bel Canto is about an idyllic world eventually shattered by death.
On a literal level, the characters in Bel Canto speak different languages. Without Watanabe’s interpreting skills, they are helpless to communicate with one another. The characters’ awareness that language separates them intensifies their desire to communicate, and Watanabe is in constant demand.
On a more abstract level, the characters have difficulty talking to one another simply because language is a flawed means of communication. When we try to put an idea into words, we are acting as Watanabe does—translating our feelings and thoughts into language. But translations are never perfect, and we can never communicate precisely what we mean through language.
Many characters in Bel Canto hide their passions. For most of his life, Kato hides his talent for playing the piano from everybody but his family. Hosokawa does not take pains to conceal his love for the opera, but he does not talk about the opera or about why it moves him. Watanabe and Carmen literally hide their love, meeting secretly in a china closet. Hosokawa and Coss also keep their love private.
The Vice President’s Mansion
Every moment of Bel Canto takes place in the vice president’s mansion, which becomes symbolic of a hidden, private world. Fog settles around the mansion, cutting it off from the outside, and no one but Joachim Messner can come and go. The mansion becomes a cocoon in which characters focus on their own thoughts and feelings and on their love for the people around them, undistracted by the busy outside world.
The Soap Opera
Art connects people by expressing shared feelings of love and loss. High art like opera functions this way, and so does low art like soap operas. In Bel Canto, soaps symbolize art’s powers of unification. The president of the country misses the party to watch a soap opera that the entire country is also watching. In a lyrical scene, Patchett describes the way the soap transfixes everyone from young terrorists to the president. By watching the soap, the country experiences emotions and catharsis as a unified group.
The opera Rusalka symbolizes the fear that deep love will end in terrible suffering. Rusalka, which is the centerpiece of Coss’s repertoire, is about a water goddess who wants to love a human prince. She has a witch give her human form, but the transformation comes with a curse: when her human lover is untrue, her embrace becomes deadly. The goddess’s lover repents for straying and begs for her love. At the end of the opera, the goddess and the lover embrace, knowing that that embrace will kill the lover.
The child terrorists who take over the vice president’s mansion symbolize the danger that accompanies every sweet part of life: innocence, love, joy. The child terrorists play games, wonder at the world, and long for the affection of the adults around them. But they wear uniforms, wield guns, and hold their hostages for months. Their innocence isn’t pure, just as love isn’t perfect, and joy isn’t lasting.
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